BALTIMORE – With his team trailing by 15 points at halftime, Tracy Blevins issued a challenge to sophomore big man Hunter Martin.
“When are you going to start to be the man?” the Rockets’ coach asked Martin. “When are you going to start to be the man that we hear talking in the hallways? It’s time to grow up.
“I think he grew up tonight,” Blevins added.
Martin scored 21 of his career-high 27 points in the second half, including a buzzer-beating 18-footer, to give the Rockets a 55-53 Mid-State League-Cardinal Division win against Liberty Union. The Rockets trailed by as many as 21 in the game.
“When he gets to the point where he plays the whole game like he did that second half, he’s going to be a very good basketball player,” Berne Union senior Jordan Blevins said. “He’s young. He’s not used to this. But he’s getting better.”
The 6-foot-9 Martin has garnered much notice in his first two seasons, and at times has shown why. But he made his biggest impact at a time the Rockets (3-3, 1-3) were in danger of losing for the fourth time in five games. Draped by two defenders all night, Martin led a charge to get the Rockets back in the game after falling behind early. He had 10 points in the third quarter as the Rockets pulled within 42-35, and he took control late in a tight final period.
Martin made five of his final six shots, including two off offensive rebounds and a breakaway dunk, and his only 3-pointer of the night tied the game at 53 with 1:08 to play. After the 28th turnover of the night by the Lions (1-6, 1-3) gave the ball back to the Rockets with 25 seconds to play, Hunter McCartney drove to the paint and kicked the ball out to Martin, who rattled in the game-winning jump shot a second before the buzzer sounded.
“Our defense at the end was terrible,” Liberty Union coach Gary Lecrone said. “We weren’t sure if (Martin) was gonna get it on the block, but everyone in the building knew he was going to get the ball.”
The Rockets overturned a bad first half on both sides of the ball. Working against a quick-rotating Lion defense that made it almost impossible to get Martin the ball, the Rockets forced low-percentage shots and had trouble creating any offensive rhythm. Austin Vannatta fronted Martin in the post, and the Lions shifted to prevent any easy entry passes.
Blevins urged the Rockets to be patient, and they came out with a more composed attack in the second half. They constantly made extra passes and waited to get Martin the ball. Martin had a six-inch height advantage on every Liberty Union player, and was the beneficiary of high lobs for easy layups as the Rockets worked back into the game.
“We realized how much we were doing wrong (in the first half),” Jordan Blevins said. “We were standing around and waiting for the ball. Then we started doing a better job of setting screens and moving to the ball, and we were able to get easy buckets out of that.”
On defense, the Rockets forced repeated turnovers with intense ball pressure. Blevins opted for a four-guard lineup that wreaked havoc on the Lions, who struggled to get into their offensive sets without giving away the ball.
The Lions only had 12 second-half shots compared to 17 turnovers. The Lions’ 28 turnovers offset a season-best 57 percent field goal average.
“We just didn’t execute anything in the second half,” Lecrone said. “Just terrible decisions in the fourth quarter. Even when the score’s tied, we make a terrible decision.”
The Lions led 30-9 midway through the second quarter when Martin picked up his second foul, a moment at which Lecrone said his team needed to put away the Rockets. Instead, Berne Union closed the half on an 8-2 spurt to start picking at the deficit.
Martin added seven rebounds and four blocks to go with his point total, and McCartney had 10 points and six assists. Greg Underwood had a team-high 13 points for the Lions, and Vannatta had 12.